Wally Lamb – Wishin’ and Hopin’: A Novel

Wally Lamb’s Wishin’ and Hopin’: A Novel is set in 1964 and follows the mundane adventures of ten-year-old Felix Funicello, distant cousin of the famous Annette Funicello. The majority of the novel is set in Felix’s fifth grade, Catholic classroom full of mischievous kids and unforgiving nuns. From the opening paragraph, the reader watches Felix attempt to navigate his way through life as an innocent and naïve kid that enjoys watching television and spending time with his awkward friends. While those around him have a loose grasp on the birds and the bees, poor Felix is clueless; he is still trying to figure out French kissing and redundant penis metaphors.

Many reviewers have labeled this novel as a hilarious walk down memory lane and, for some odd reason, have drawn comparisons to the family-favorite film “The Christmas Story.” Maybe I’m too young to start taking a trip down memory lane, but as I read Lamb’s light-hearted novel, I felt as though I didn’t get the joke. I saw the punch line coming down Main Street in a bright yellow cab. I never chuckled once.

Often, when I browse the new release shelves at my local corporate bookstore, I glance at the back of the books and read the synopsis of many of the novels, hoping to find one or two that captures my interest. More and more it seems like authors are writing with the singular goal of turning their prose into a high grossing Hollywood film staring Julia Roberts or some other aging movie star. Lamb’s Wishin’ is guilty of this desire, which in the end compromises the integrity of the novel.

This Hollywood desire can be seen in Lamb’s lack of development in his one-dimensional characters. I’ve seen his characters before in various defunct television sitcoms from the 80s. One of the most interesting characters of the novel is the substitute teacher, the glamorous Madame Marguerite, who fills in for Felix’s cookie cutter teacher, Sister Dymphna. M. Marguerite is hardly Catholic in belief and in dress; she is more Canadian, and a rebel, than Catholic. Throughout her stay at the stuffy school, Madam continuously crowbars French lessons into the classroom. The children are expected to communicate and understand her native language. This forced language barrier, at times, allows Felix to become more accessible and understandable. The reader shares in his awkwardness and embarrassment of trying to speak a foreign language in front of our peers.

The other interesting character of the novel is Russian tomboy, and suspecting communist, Zhenya Kabakova who recently moves to town and takes St. Aloysis Gonzaga Parochial School by storm. With her exposed bra strap, exaggerated Russian accent, and dirty mind, Zhenya inherently steals the spotlight from Felix. If Lamb would have focused the novel around Zhenya, it would have been more appealing; the story would not have fell short, and the predicted transformation of the novel in to film would have been more attractive. The reader wanted to know more about Zhenya and her family.

Maybe you have to be a baby boomer and an avid reader of Wal-Mart novels to appreciate Lamb’s throwaway references to LBJ, The Beatles, and television cook offs. Overall, Lamb’s prose is weak and predictable. His overuse of italics slows many of sentences down to a painful crawl. I’ve never known a fifth grader to emphasis her/his words as much as Lamb’s characters do in this novel. Wishin’ and Hopin’ had me wishin’ I had not spent my money on his latest release, while I was hopin’ the story would have escaped the redundancy of its sugary and pandering cuteness that only a sixty year old could love.

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February 19, 2011. Literature.

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